Day One, Morning: Leaving Jerusalem for Gaza
My daughters, their long, curly hair hanging out of the second-floor window, waved furiously as I got into the taxi bound for Gaza. It was a send-off far more significant than when I travelled to Indonesia or Namibia. In those cases, they said goodbye and went back to reading. Today, though, my girls, who I can hardly drag to Bethlehem or Nablus, sent me off with a longing in their eyes. It’s the same look I got from all the West Bank Palestinians I told about my trip plans. It’s a look that encompasses envy and sadness and anger. Because they cannot go to Gaza.
They cannot go meet nephews, nephews who enjoy birthdays without the auntie they know only by name. They cannot visit the graves of their parents who died without their comforting touch at the end. They can’t even go for work, for a meeting with colleagues at the university or to negotiate prices with partners. They can’t go to Gaza because Israel does not allow them. And Gazans, except under rare circumstances, are not allowed to go to the West Bank.
Gaza is only about one hour by car from Jerusalem.
One of my friends was last in Gaza 13 years ago, another 20 years ago, another 8 years ago. I got in (my first visit in 25 years) for a consultancy with an international organization, with my US passport, and lots of international negotiating effort.
The Gaza Strip is a tiny, but integral, part of Palestine. Twenty-five miles long and 7.5 miles wide at its widest, it lays along the Mediterranean Sea coast just south of Israel. Administered as part of the British Mandate since the twenties, the war in 1948, Gaza brought under Egyptian control. In 1967 Gaza was occupied by Israel, and over time restrictions on mobility between Gaza and the West Bank were implemented. The Oslo Accords cemented these restrictions in 1993, and Israeli settlements expanded. In 2005, Israel changed its occupation tactics. It removed the Israeli settlements inside Gaza and hardened control over the perimeter. The Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power in 2006 triggered an international boycott of the Palestinian Authority, followed by internal fighting that ended with Hamas in charge of Gaza and Fatah in charge of the West Bank. That, in 2007, was excuse for Israel to implement a blockade that has cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestine almost totally.
Now, Gaza is not only physically and politically separated from the West Bank, but culturally and socially, too. Though Palestinians try to work across the divide, the truth is that the Israeli attempt to break Palestinians into cantons has worked – going to Gaza is like going to a foreign country. Even my young daughters know that.
Day One, Evening: Putting Faces to Voices
I ate a lovely meal with a dear, old friend, someone who I care about deeply, whose panic I’ve heard over the phone lines when bombs fell indiscriminately around him and his family. He has been my friend for seven years. We worked together to build an organization, to establish its mission and culture, to build its programs. But since he has always been denied an exit visa by Israel (even to attend a conflict resolution training with a scholarship from the US embassy), and since I could not enter Gaza, today was the first time we ever met.
Sitting there, trying to memorize the face that went with the voice, and thrilling in the sight of his adorable boys riding a bicycle in circles in the living room, I tried to imagine how our friendship might have developed if Gaza had not been under siege.
The glow of the conversation lit the faces of my friends, but at some point I realized that I could no longer see the stuffed zucchini well, and a few minutes later, we were sitting in darkness. I groped for my camera that I remembered putting down near my plate so that it would not be lost.
No one moved to turn on the lights, which I found odd, until I recalled that in Gaza, they only have electricity 8-10 hours a day. The entire neighbourhood was dark. This is Gaza.
We cleared the table in darkness, setting plates on the kitchen counter, and putting soda in the refrigerator, which was now not running.
It wasn’t long before the lights came on again, fuelled by my friend’s brother’s generator. I felt myself exhale, and I felt guilty. Daily life in Gaza—even without bombs falling—presents a level of unpredictability and inconvenience that disoriented me.
We walked to his car passed the roar of the generators and the greasy smell made the zucchini turn over in my stomach.
He drove me back to the apartment where I was staying and he said, with what felt to me like great emotion, “Next time bring the whole family.” And I said, “Really? Will Israel allow that? Can my youngest daughter come here to play with your son?” And looking straight ahead he said, “No.” There was silence and I realized we had hit the limits of normal conversation, where reality makes a mockery of normal dreams.